Friday, September 20, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: TODAY WE LIVE (1933)

William Faulkner was Snoopy: a dogged writer who dreamed of being a World War I flying ace. Faulkner had the double advantage over the bipedal beagle of actually existing and doing so during the war. He went to pilot school but no further, but let the folks at home believe more than that. He was good at fiction, or so the Nobel committee said. He was less good at movies, but found a patron in Howard Hawks. Maybe Hawks sat on his doghouse roof in turn and dreamed of writing famously. He sought the company of great writers. Hemingway kept him at arm's length (he liked Gary Cooper better), allowing him a free (in spirit if not in price) adaptation of To Have and Have Not scripted by none other than Faulkner but never consenting to write for film. Hemingway may have stayed away from movies so he could sneer at his rivals for writing them. Faulkner needed the money more, I suppose -- though by the time Hawks got hold of him he had become a bona fide bestseller by virtue of his novel Sanctuary, filmed without his input as The Story of Temple Drake, and enough of a celebrity that his name could be mentioned in some of the advertising for his adaptation, directed by Hawks, of his own short story "Turnabout." The story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, another workplace Hemingway avoided and another he held against his rivals, even the friendly ones like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who supposedly wasted his gifts working to commercial formulae. For what it was worth, "Turnabout" was well read in the Post, but required enhancement in the adaptation to cinema. Faulkner is credited with the story (of course) and the dialogue of Today We Live, but the "screen play" itself flowed from other pens. Edith Fitzgerald and Dwight Taylor ought to be mentioned here, because their additions to the magazine story might otherwise convince people (like me) who know the story only through the movie to think that the story itself had been written by Snoopy.

It is like this: Gary Cooper is a rich American who moves to England and becomes Joan Crawford's new neighbor, introducing himself with an almost national instinct at the worst time, Joan having lost her father to the war. That leaves her with a brother, played by future husband Franchot Tone, and a future husband, played by Robert Young, whose possible intimacies with Crawford are unknown to me. You can tell the other three are British while Cooper isn't, however alike all four sound, because they're already there when the picture starts. They're fighting in the war, too, and in his turn Cooper catches the war bug, around the time Crawford catches the Cooper bug.  Joan herself crosses the water to play nurse, only to learn that Cooper, a flier himself, has crashed and died. Audiences with memories of William Wellman's Wings would by this point be reluctant ever to fly with Gary Cooper, unless they realized that it was too soon in the picture, at this more advanced point in his career, for Cooper to be dead. Joan herself doesn't realize this and hooks up with Young for consolation. As was predictable, Cooper reappears expecting to pick up where he left off with Crawford and realizing his error, and her deceit, only when he delivers a drunken Young to his living quarters, which are Crawford's, too.

Faulkner thus adds, or is provided with, an additional motive element of romantic rivalry for the scenes that are the real material of "Turnabout" and the stuff that must have attracted Hawks to the story. Cooper and Young, the latter seconded by Tone and the former by Roscoe Karns, engage in a contest of one-upmanship, debating whose is the braver work in the war. While Cooper bombs cities, Young and Tone operate a torpedo boat that doesn't fire torpedoes but guides them -- hauls them, really, toward their targets. Young gets a plane ride, Cooper a boat ride; each is impressed. The sea scenes are somewhat more convincing, Hawks's setbound planes lacking the scale and mobility of later fakery in films like Too Hot to Handle. Through editing and simple directorial persistence Hawks manages to give these scenes some dramatic momentum. Hawks was also obviously enthused by scenes of barracks camaraderie, the great sport of First World Warriors during their downtime being the training and matching of fighting cockroaches. But there is nothing Hawksian, and hardly anything Faulknerian, about the wrap-up. Would either of them have assumed on their own that once Cooper returned from the presumptive dead that either he or Young must die the big death? Yet audiences and/or producers assumed just that, and so did our creators. So Young gets blinded in battle. By movie rules that means that Crawford will give up any further thought of Cooper to take care of Young, while Young will not want to be a burden to her, as he imagines a blind man must be. He convinces Tone to take him out for one more mission, while Cooper, learning of Young's adventure, rushes his plane into the air to pretty much watch as a mishap with the torpedo boat's firing mechanism, to describe it generously, compels Tone to take on a suicide mission. Following movie rules himself, he's going to spare Young by tossing him overboard, but this is the moment Young has been waiting for, so rather than take a dive he wraps himself around Tone (some scholars see subtext in "Turnabout," but some people see subtext everywhere) and together the buddies send a shipload of Heinies to Valhalla, blowing Crawford a clear path to her romantic reunion with Cooper.

Faulkner would return to themes of flying in his novel Pylon, adapted by Douglas Sirk during Faulker's second round of celebrity as The Tarnished Angels, and to themes of World War I in A Fable, infamous during his lifetime as an overhyped pretentious post-Nobel dud. Hawks hooked up with him next for another war picture, 1936's The Road to Glory. Their best-loved collaborations are To Have and Have Not and their Raymond Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep, for which they and co-writer Leigh Brackett, according to legend, had to ask Chandler whodunit, in vain. Later, Hawks identified Faulkner as the perfect man to write an Ancient Egyptian epic -- the idea hadn't occurred to Norman Mailer yet -- and the end product, Land of the Pharaohs, reached DVD as a "Cult Camp Classic." Today We Live was the only time Hawks adapted his friend's own work, which is probably a good thing for both men's reputations, which were better off when this film was more thoroughly forgotten.

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